It was only last week, while I was gazing at my coconut trees and thinking how grateful I was for my cell phone, when the results of the WHO Interphone study arrived. The study was looking for any connection between the over 5,000 brain tumors that had occurred between 2000-2004 and prolonged cell phone usage.
But first the coconut-tree-cell-phone connection.
Now, my relationship with my cell phone could be described at best of times as tricky.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against cell phones. But if I didn’t have one, it’d only be a slight exaggeration to say that I’d miss it as much as I would soggy toast. For one, it almost always rings when I can’t find it or can’t answer it. And when I do manage to answer it, it’s never James Cameron asking me to write his next film. Or George Clooney telling me that he’s madly in love with me. Or Steve Jobs offering me stock options in Apple (Move over, Billy-G.) If I talk for more than 30 seconds on it, my ear gets all hot and sweaty and squished up and I feel as if I’m talking on an iron, not a phone. And now that I’m considering getting one of those smart phones (only to keep up with the Jaykumars), I’m worried that it’ll turn out to be so smart that I won’t know how to use it.
And I’ve noticed that other people’s cell phones don’t make them behave any better either. They clutch at it hotly at all times as if it’s a reluctant lover about to make a getaway and when it rings, they rush to answer it as if it was James Cameron calling. Or George Clooney. Or Steve Jobs. And just in case one of them will call one day, they drive with it, take it for walks, to the movies, the loo (what else did you think was that plonk-plonk-sploosh-gurgle sound when you called your boss this morning?), even to bed. Apparently, the next piece cell phone wizardry will allow you to have your phone implanted into your..,er, never mind.
So, the only time I’m really happy that I have a cell phone is when I look at the two coconut trees in my garden. Lovely creatures, really, swishing their fronds seductively like hula dancers and keeping us always topped up with nariyal pani and luscious, freshly plucked coconut flesh. But the trouble with coconut trees is that you can’t train them the way you can dogs. So, every now and then, without so much as a hey-ninny-no, they shed coconuts and dried palm fronds. And since both the trees are near the compound wall, my relationship with the neighbours is, to put it mildly, frosty and distant.
But that was till I found a coconut-tree man with a cell phone.
For the uninitiated, a coconut tree man is someone who nimbly shimmies up coconut trees and divests them of coconuts, dried palm fronds and other such neighbour-unfriendly objects. The problem is, most coconut-tree men are rural folk who come into town only when there’s no work back home and it almost never when your coconut tree is ready to shed its load.
Except if the man has a cell phone. Then you have him on call, like home delivery. (Naturally, I always call from my landline.)
So, when the Interphone study results arrived, I was worried. You see, I always had this niggling fear that if every time I talked on the cell phone, I was sending into my brain the same stuff that scrambles eggs in a microwave oven, it can’t be a good thing, right? Yeah, yeah. I know it’s in the teeniest-tiniest doses, but it’s still electromagnetic radiation, right? And over time, things add up, don’t they - even the teeniest-tiniest? Studies say that electromagnetic radiation is killing off honeybees in the USA and that men who keep cell phones in their pants pocket have shown a significant decrease in sperm counts. Now I haven’t seen any honeybees nattering on cell phones or men talking on the ones that are in their pockets…
So, did the Interphone study confirm or allay my fears? (Would this mean good bye to my coconut tree man?)
Firstly, even though the results of the study were ready in 2004, the researchers delayed publishing them because they couldn’t agree about how exactly to present the data. (You’d think a study that cost 24 million dollars and covered over 10,000 respondents in 13 countries would be more sure of itself.)
When they finally did decide to publish, this is what they said.
There is no obvious connection between cell phone use and brain cancer.
If you are a heavy user, you have a 40% higher risk; a heavy user being defined as someone who uses the cell phone on an average of 30 minutes a day. According to a 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal, rural Indians talk on their cell phone for about 17 minutes a day. I’m willing to bet my smartphone (the one I still have to buy) that this figure would at least double for the average urban Indian techie-teenager.
Incidentally, the study did not include any teenagers. Or children. Or for that matter, anyone under the age of thirty even though world wide, (and especially in India), most cell phone users today are under age thirty.
Niether did it include rural users. According to Devra Lee Davis, Carnegie Science Medal winner and Founding Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, cell phones in rural areas emit significantly more radiation because they need to reach more distant antennas.
And if you are still not getting the message, this should reassure you.
Dr. Elisabeth Cardis, the scientist who led the Interphone study had this to say after the results were published. “Until stronger conclusions can be drawn one way or another, it may be reasonable to reduce one’s exposure to cellular radiation. It can’t hurt.”
Actually we shouldn’t worry about brain cancer. Because using cell phones while driving is a far greater threat. Compared to 300 possible brain tumours annually, it is estimated that about 8 people die every day in America in auto accidents caused by cell phone distractions. I shudder to think what that statistic is in India.